The five-times-married soul star says she was singing about rocky relationships 50 years before Beyoncé
Hi Candi! You once said you hated an interview so much that when you read it, you burned it. Should I be scared?
No, no, no! I didn’t do that. I love doing interviews and talking to people – you must have got me mixed up with Diana Ross! She would not do interviews. Or autographs. I was with her once and this little kid came up and said: “Miss Ross! Miss Ross! Can I have an autograph?” She said: “No. No, you cannot.” I felt bad, I was like “I can give you one.” They didn’t even know who I was!
You’ve just played at Bestival. Do you have a high tolerance for fancy dress?
It was like a circus. Everybody was in circus and clown clothes with flowers all over the place. And they sleep in those tents? I’m like, how do you guys do that? But it’s all about fun.
So, what was the plan for your new album (1)?
It’s like an anthology of my life. There’s not a song on it that I’ve not lived. I kind of did what Beyoncé did when she wants to talk about someone, especially when she’s mad at Jay Z, like: “I ain’t doin’ this no more!” Well, I did that, but I didn’t copy her – oh my God, come on, we’ve been doing that since the 60s. We taught them how to do this. We’ve been telling people off through song since for ever.
Was it cathartic?
It was therapy. Only you don’t have to lie down on a couch with a pillow. You sing your troubles, instead.
You started performing in the 1950s … did you have any idea back then that you’d still be releasing music in 2014?
Oh my gosh, no! I thought it was just a little thing I would like to do! When you’re born with a talent, it’s like walking or talking and you kinda take it for granted. I didn’t really think about it in terms of a career. I was forced into it because I had four kids (2) .
What were the early gospel tours you went on like (3)?
I could write a history book. Back in those days it was segregation. I was on the road at 10, 12 years old and we had to travel in caravans. All of the people on the show would be right behind each other – car after car after car. When one car stopped to get gas, everybody stopped, even if they didn’t need it, because we couldn’t lose each other. We never knew when one of the Southern police officers would stop us and harass us. So we never left each other alone, especially at night. Sometimes we would park under oak trees in parks to sleep. And there were safe homes. We had one in Louisiana, one in Jackson, Mississippi. We tried to make it to these homes, because they would be ready for us and we could sleep. If we could just get to Jackson, we could work, change clothes, drive back and forth to the auditoriums. Then if we had to go 500, 600 miles, we would do that. Sam Cooke was in those caravans. Lou Rawls was there. Aretha Franklin and her father CL Franklin, too. Matter of fact, Aretha sent me a note just the other day – I’ve known her since we were kids together.
You must have learned a lot from them?
It was exciting, but we didn’t look at them like we look at them now. They were just everyday people, like next door neighbours. Sam and I would just sit and talk outside the auditoriums, on the schoolyard steps. He would tell me about his life and things he wanted to do. I remember him telling me he was going to Capitol Records, to cross over into secular music, but I wasn’t sure about it. I had been there the night they booed [Sister] Rosetta Tharpe offstage. They threw napkins and Coke bottles at her and shouted: “You going to hell, you devil worshipper! Get off the stage!” She ran off the stage crying, scared the living daylights out of me. That put something inside of me that said: “Don’t you ever sing the blues – because this is what you get.” So I reminded Sam of that, but he said it wouldn’t happen to him. “I got connections,” he said.
You must have been scared to move away from gospel yourself, then?
I was afraid at first. I was married to the son of a pastor, and he was very strict. The church didn’t believe in television, but my sister-in-law moved into my house and brought her television. My eldest child, who is like the mouth of the family, went running to the pastor, saying: “Granddaddy, granddaddy, guess what? We got a television!” So he put me out of the church. And when he did that I was so angry I started singing in nightclubs. They said “you’re going to hell” and I was like “I just gotta go.”
Have the bad things in your life often resulted in your best music?
Oh yeah. I always look for a light at the end of the tunnel. Young Hearts Run Free came from a bad marriage. Well, it wasn’t really a marriage – I was led to believe I was married to someone who tricked me into believing I was married. Tina Turner has nothing on me. Oh gosh, she only had one Ike! I had four of them (4). And each one carries their own story. So with Young Hearts Run Free I was trying to get away from [my first husband] and I would talk to David Crawford, who had been hired as a songwriter by Warners. We’d have lunch together and I would tell him my problems: how this man threatened to kill me and he’d be going “What?! No he didn’t!” and all the time he was writing it down. Anyway, I flew out to LA and sung it one time, perfect. It was one take. You know why? Because it was me. Everything on that sheet was about what I was going through.
You’ve talked before about playing it live and crying while you sang it. Did the audience ever notice?
No. They thought I was sweating. (Laughs.)
How decadent were the disco days? When the Guardian spoke to Nile Rodgers about Studio 54 he said people were having sex in the bathrooms …
I didn’t know about that. I think because they never let me in the basement. I was like: “What’s down there?” and they would be like: “Candi, you don’t wanna know. You are never going.” They had security everywhere, they kind of protected me.
You recorded your original version of You Got the Love in 1986 for a documentary about an obese man. Did you really have no idea what a great song it was?
No way, not a clue. We were out in Nassau, Bahamas, and there was this guy who was 900lb – I’ve never seen anything like it. He wore a tent and had balls as big as basketballs hanging on his leg. He couldn’t wear shoes and they would take him to the ocean to bathe. Anyway, they wanted a song just for the documentary, so I went to Chicago and recorded it. His desired weight was 195lb, he got down to 300lb but then his mother came to visit him and cooked him one of the biggest meals you’d ever seen. He started back eating, gained it all back, put on even more, and that’s when he died. His heart couldn’t take it, so they dropped the project, and the song died.
What did you think when you first heard the Source’s version?
I was so mad. I was angry.A DJ called me to tell me I had a top 10 record but at the time I was on sabbatical, I wasn’t doing secular music. I was happy being out of it, I didn’t have to worry about smoky clubs any more. I’d forgotten about the song and they’d remixed it to such an extent I wasn’t even familiar with the changes and the chords – I didn’t even know how to sing it. I thought: what in the world have they done to this song?
Do you like it now?
I love it! I LOVE it! We put a version together in the studio but, unfortunately, Florence was at Glastonbury festival and she heard my version. I think she recorded it with her phone, or somebody did, and then she put my version out, the version that I sang on stage. One of my backing singers said: “Candi, that’s the version we do!” We were going to record it like that but she beat us to it. It’s OK, though, I’m not mad at her. She did a great job. I would love to sing it with her on stage some time – that would be a dream of mine.
Did that song start you playing secular music again (5)?
Yes, because people started asking me to come over to perform it. And then the compilation came out through Honest Jons (6) and people found out I could do more than just Young Hearts Run Free, Stand By Your Man and You Got the Love … they began to follow the history. I thank God for the fact that Europe has embraced me. America has a way of not honouring the people who built the bridges and laid the foundations. They will do a little bit, but we don’t get the big money, the big gigs, like the young people and the rappers that are coming up. We have to do the old-school thing, with all of us together. We can’t draw the big crowds on our own like we can over here.
Why do you think that is?
Because you’re historians. People over here don’t just listen – they learn. We’re like old wine, or antique jewels … you can’t just go to any store and pick them up. You gotta go to special places to find that ring that your great grandmother had.
What do you think of the modern pop scene?
There’s some pretty good artists coming through. I don’t agree with the strip club look, I don’t think that’s necessary, to dress so provocatively. You can be classy sexy instead of showing everything. When a man sees a woman who is classy sexy, his mind wanders, wondering about the things he hasn’t seen. When it’s all on show, it’s like there’s no imagination.
Where next? Will you still be playing shows in another 60 years?
If I’m alive. So many of us are passing on and I pray every day that I can stay healthy and keep doing it until I’m at least 95. I love it more now than when I first started.
(1) Life Happens is due out in October (you can pre-order here)
(2) Today Candi is with her son Marcus, who helped master Life Happens.
(3) Before she reached her teens, Candi was part of the Jewell Gospel Trio with her sister Maggie and Naomi Harrison.
(4) Candi has been married five times.
(5) Candi returned to her gospel roots in the 1980s. She has since released eight albums of spiritual songs and won two Grammys for them.
(6) Self-titled 2004 compilation featuring Candi’s country soul recordings.